Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Buddhism in Laos, Spirits, Temples and Monks

 Luang Prabang ©Solange Hando

Around 60% of people in Laos practise Buddhism and from tribal villages to cities, temples and shrines greet you with golden statues, incense, lotus offerings and the chanting of monks which seems to rise from the dawn of times.

 In the lush northern hills, the old capital of Luang Prabang claims some 30 temples and monasteries, each one a peaceful oasis at the heart of town set among trees and flaming bougainvillea. For many, this is the most inspiring place on the banks of the Mekong, relaxed, charming and full of positive vibes.

 Time for a Break ©Solange Hando

As in other Asian countries, Buddhist men in Laos are expected to spend some time as monks, be it for a week, a month or longer. Many join as young men, or even children, but what happens if a married man suddenly decides the time has come for him to enter the monk hood and earn merits for his family? Monks cannot have a wife...

No problem here, you divorce your wife and when your time in the monastery is over, just marry her again. This time though, there's no need to splash out on a big wedding, a simple ceremony will do and you're be man and wife again. Astute, tolerant, what do you think?

 Luang Prabang ©Solange Hando

Traditionally, Buddhist monks 'beg' for their food, a daily ritual which gives them a chance to demonstrate humility, free more time to serve and pray for the community and offers their followers an opportunity to earn merits. Good all round.

For the people who line up the streets of Luang Prabang at dawn, it's an act of respect and generosity as they share their daily food and receive blessings.  Monks take only what they need and whatever is left, rice, fruit, biscuits, is taken home for the family's meal or given to the poor. It's about sharing rather than begging.

  Spirit House in Laos ©Solange Hando

But it isn't just about temples and monks. Respect for all living things is a guiding principle for all Buddhists and here, as in neighbouring Thailand, that includes paying homage to the spirits said to inhabit the natural world. So spirit houses pop up everywhere, among the trees or on the streets, in the gardens or along the river banks.

Most are painted red and gold, beautifully crafted and laden with fresh offerings every morning, flowers, water, sticky rice and more. I'm sure the the Buddha would approve.

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